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Why does the apostle Paul consider it a dishonour if a man prays with his head covered in 1 Corinthians 11:4?

NIV-UK Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head.

  • Do you mean "a dishonor if a man... uncovered?" or "covered"? – Bach May 30 '17 at 14:01
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This is a bewildering passage indeed. Some context from ancient Greek medical literature can help illuminate it, however.

Hippocratic authors hold that hair is hollow and grows primarily from either male or female reproductive fluid or semen flowing into it and congealing (Hippocrates, Nat. puer. 20). Since hollow body parts create a vacuum and attract fluid, hair attracts semen.... Hair grows most prolifically from the head because the brain is the place where the semen is produced or at least stored (Hippocrates, Genit. 1). Hair grows only on the head of prepubescent humans because semen is stored in the brain and the channels of the body have not yet become large enough for reproductive fluid to travel throughout the body (Hippocrates, Nat. puer. 20; Genit. 2). At puberty, secondary hair growth in the pubic area marks the movement of reproductive fluid from the brain to the rest of the body (Hippocrates, Nat. puer. 20; Genit. 1). Women have less body hair not only because they have less semen but also because their colder bodies do not froth the semen throughout their bodies but reduce semen evaporation at the ends of their hair (Hippocrates, Nat. puer. 20).

According to these medical authors, men have more hair because they have more semen and their hotter bodies froth this semen more readily throughout their whole bodies (Hippocrates, Nat. puer. 20). The nature (φύσις) of men is to release or eject the semen. During intercourse, semen has to fill all the hollow hairs on its way from the male brain to the genital area (Aristotle, Probl. 893b.10-17). Thus, men have hair growth on their face, chest, and stomach. A man with hair on his back reverses the usual position of intercourse. A man with long hair retains much or all of his semen, and his long hollow hair draws the semen toward his head area but away from his genital area, where it should be ejected. Therefore, 1 Cor 11:4 correctly states that it is a shame for a man to have long hair since the male nature (φύσις) is to eject rather than retain semen."1

Conversely, the nature of women was to "draw up" semen, and as such should have long hair to increase this "vacuum" effect, increasing the odds of fertility.

While science has clearly made some advancements in the understanding of human physiology, one can sympathize with this worldview given the instruments available in their day and age for conducting medical research. This worldview explains the passage in 1 Corinthians 11:4 and why long hair was disgraceful to a man in the ancient Greek world.

As such, Paul clearly taught that men should not have long hair, in line with Greco-Roman thought on the function of hair and reproductive science.


Footnotes

1 Troy W. Martin, "Paul’s argument from nature for the veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A testicle instead of a head covering," Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL) 123, no. 1 (2004), 77-78. doi: 10.2307/3268550. (read it for free here).

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In context, in 1Cor 11, Paul is talking about authority. Jesus is under the father's authority, man is under God's authority, and the woman is under the man (her husband's) authority. The head is the place where decisions are made.

Both men and women are equal, just like Jesus and the father are equal but they have different roles- Jesus himself is subject to the Father.

And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. 1 Corinthians 15:28 KJV

To explain this, Paul uses a physical example like he so often does in his epistles. In culture at that time, and even in several cultures today, women cover their head as a symbol of subjection to authority.

So he uses two examples. One -how in culture women cover their head, and two - how even naturally women have longer hair, a natural symbol that they are subject to their husbands.

A woman without a head covering was considered a wanton woman, someone who refused to be subject to her husband's (her head's) authority, who was disrespectful towards him. Similarly for a woman's head to be shaved was considered a disgrace. Paul mentions that here:

But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 1 Corinthians 11:5‭-‬6 KJV

Jewish men while praying cover their head, a symbol that they are subject to God. However since Paul is writing to gentiles, he is referencing their culture. Men don't cover their head because they aren't subject to someone else's authority, as women are to their husbands.

The line of authority goes thus- Jesus begotten of the Father, Man created by Jesus, woman taken out from the man.

But in case anyone misunderstands,he explains that in Christ both men and women are equal. Just like Jesus and the Father are equal but have different roles.

Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. 1 Corinthians 11:11 KJV

He summarizes by saying : But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God. 1 Corinthians 11:16 KJV

The example of head coverings is just a physical example to explain to them, there is no such custom or ordinance in the churches.

So no, neither men nor women have to cover their head in church.

  • "A woman without a head covering was considered a wanton woman, someone who refused to be subject to her husband's authority." do you have a source for this? At this site, "showing your work" is expected. This would require citing a source on the culture during first century, second Temple Judaism as a reference for this statement. – Dan May 28 '17 at 3:49
  • @Dan - Hannah's argument is generally used in reference to "Temple Prostitutes" - and I agree could use a citation. However - even if such a / Greek / custom existed, it would still have to be shown that this was ever alluded to either in Scripture, held in Palestinian Israel, or an inference made by the early Church - since there really isn't strong evidence from Scripture. Or - the verse could simply be speaking about "Glory" as it states, in reference to Moses covering his head, and "mourners", and Jesus' commandment to not do these displays, (Matthew 6). – elika kohen Jun 19 '17 at 15:32
  • It is interesting that you say that the head is where decisions are made because in the scriptures it seems they are made in the heart, kidneys, etc. Also, men and women are not equal in the scriptures; neither are God and Jesus. – Ruminator Oct 22 '17 at 23:39
  • Paul says that a woman must be covered when she prays or prophesies (at least!) but that her long hair is a God-given natural covering. But if she cuts off her hair then shame on her. An inconvenient truth for modern women and men. If you disagree all Paul seems to press the point is to say "we have no such custom" perhaps just saying "don't try to make us Christian men cover our heads" or "No yarmulkes for us guys, please, thank you very much". – Ruminator Oct 22 '17 at 23:54
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1. Question Restatement:

Why does the apostle Paul consider it a dishonour if a man prays with his head covered in 1 Corinthians 11:4?

2. Two Potential "Solutions" to the Question:

In context, Paul was explicitly refuting a particular tradition/custom - which is apparent in the text. There is a Judaic "tradition" which asserts the exact opposite of what Paul is declaring:

2.1. As Jesus Did, Paul Consistently Refuted "Oral Traditions/Authority":

1 Corinthians 11:16 - But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

Jewish Virtual Library, Covering of the Head - Moreover, the covering of the head, as an expression of the "fear of God" (yirat shamayim), and as a continuation of the practice of the Babylonian scholars (Kid. 31a), was gradually endorsed by the Ashkenazi rabbis. Even they stated, however, that it was merely a worthy custom, and that there was no injunction against praying without a head cover (Maharshal, Resp. no. 7; Be'ur ha-Gra to Sh. Ar., OḤ 8:2). The opinion of David Halevy of Ostrog (17th century) is an exception.

2.2. Moses would uncover his head before God, but veil the glory of God on him - before people:

NKJV, Exodus 34:35 - And whenever the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone, then Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with Him.

2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4.. - Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech— 13 unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. 15 But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. 16 Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.

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The immediate answer is given in verse 7:

For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man (1 Cor 11:7 NASB)

A head covering is a symbol of authority (v 10). A woman is to cover her head signifying her status as under the authority of man, but a man ought not since he is the image and glory of God. Women are also imagebearers of God (Gen. 1:27), but not the glory of God. Woman is the glory of man.

If a man had something on his head while praying or prophesying, he would be symbolizing the glory of God as under an authority.

This is all in the broader context of discussing Christian order: God is the head of Christ, who is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman (v 3). The teaching that man ought to pray or prophesy without something on his head is in recognition of this structure.

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Paul does not consider male and female to be the results of random evolution but rather a divine model to illustrate the spiritual truths. Physical realities reflect spiritual realities, or at least they should.

Someone was promoting a custom that sounded spiritual but actually undermined the illustration that God intended, that the man should be the image of Christ as Jesus is the image of God and the woman should bear the image of the man as the bride of Christ bears the image of the Christ.

1 Cor 11: 1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. 2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. 5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.

New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (1 Co 11:1–16). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

In this age of Feminism, Christians (and I use the term loosely) who do not appreciate this chafe at Paul's teaching finding the submission of wives to their husbands to be cultural rather than of divine design.

Paul is writing in defense of an unequivocal distinction of roles for each gender to properly illustrate the relationship between Christ and his own bride.

In addition Paul alludes to Genesis 6 where the angels/watchers see the daughters of men and pursue the American Dream with them. He says that the woman's covering protects them from these angels and their pursuit of foreign flesh.

Update

For the case for woman's heads being covered, see this link.

Interestingly John Wesley of all people considered long hair only a shame in a culture where hair had that association:

John Wesley

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